Nick Smith’s departure from Parliament yesterday marks the end of an era for National.
He is the last MP to have served in the 1990 – 99 Bolger Government, and he leaves behind only one MP — Trevor Mallard — first elected to a first past the post Parliament.
Smith has been not just a high profile MP in Parliament and a true-blue, highly partisan tribal Nat but also, behind the scenes, a key operator within the party.
He has been at every regional party conference this year, the only MP apart from Judith Collins to do so.
Three weeks ago, he was at the party’s Central North Island regional conference as a guest speaking on policy formation.
This was a role he undertook during the last Parliament, and he presided over a campaign that saw the production of a series of policy discussion documents.
Smith had worked for nearly three years and undertaken hours and hours of consultation with party members and stakeholders.
He unveiled a preview at the party’s South Island regional conference in 2019.
“We should not be excessively focused on us undoing what Labour has done,” he said.
“Actually, it is unoriginal and boring.”
He revealed the headline results of the party’s “Have Your Say” campaign, which he said had had 10,000 responses.
Much of his report was predictable; small business wanted less regulation; seniors were concerned about health; families wanted help with dental care and were concerned about special education. There were concerns about mental health, and rural communities wanted more action on bio-security.
Respondents were asked to rate government agencies, and perhaps surprisingly, the Inland Revenue Department topped three lists while less surprisingly, local government came bottom in all of them.
Young people, however, were concerned about rents, the environment and wanted a commitment to tackle climate change.
“There is lots of commentary about a party in opposition and how it can be united,” he said.
“The political movements that are unstoppable are those that have a unity of purpose; those that don’t have an ambition for a person but an ambition for one’s country.”
It was typical Smith; centrist but leaning to the right and based on a huge amount of research.
But it was all to no avail.
Much to his dismay and evident frustration, his work was promptly dumped by Todd Muller when he took the leadership. (Smith had argued against the leadership change)
Muller then assigned Amy Adams the task of preparing the party policy for the election 12 weeks before polling day.
That is why National went into the last campaign with no obvious policy platform.
The way he was treated would surely have deterred most people.
But he seemed able to ignore setbacks or wounds like the recent role played in his resignation by his leader (whose quick slap on the back after his valedictory speech seemed to say everything).
Instead, he simply presses on.
He has always been nothing if not persistent — some might say obsessive — about whatever he was doing, and thus, he has begun the same policy process all over again — from the beginning.
He has prepared 20 questions about where New Zealand should go which he wants party members to answer.
That was to be at the heart of his preparation of policy for the next election. Whether it will continue now he is out of Parliament remains to be seen.
He has been a loyal tribal Nat, and that was very much on display when he hosted the annual Blue Greens Conference in Nelson last year just before the Covid lockdown.
A keen home-brewer, he had produced a range of beers named after his colleagues, which he proudly poured at a barbeque at his home.
But his role in founding the Blue Greens with Guy Salmon and the late Sir Rob Fenwick gave him a base from which to promote his environmentalism within National.
At the Blue Greens annual conference in 2015, he floated the idea of reforming the Resource Management Act by breaking it into two or three separate acts.
As Minister for the Environment in the last term of the key Government, while attending an OECD conference in Paris, he was able through another early Blue Green, Simon Upton, to meet the British Conservative politician Lord Deben who became the first chair of that country’s Independent Committee on Climate Change. Smith brought Deben to a Blue Greens conference in 2017, and that visit became the inspiration of the New Zealand Climate Change Commission.
He has also taken an intense interest in electoral matters.
In Opposition, that has been an issue he has tried to pursue through Select Committees.
His frustration with the way the Committees currently work in Parliament was evident in his valedictory speech yesterday.
“The most notable change for the worse is the lameness of select committees today,” he said.
“They have become perfunctory rubber stamps.
“Worthwhile inquiries are blocked.
“It has got worse with the distraction of iPhones and laptops.
“Select Committees need revamping to be more collegial with Government and Opposition MPs genuinely holding departments to account for their spending and performance.”
He might have noted that phones and laptops are not recent inventions and that the problems with Select Committees have been around for some time.
But Smith is first and foremost a tribal Nat; the idea that his own party might have been the origin of the problem he was talking about would simply not occur to him.